Book Review: Old Celtic Romances

Book Review: Old Celtic Romances by P.W. Joyce

The Gaelic-speaking people of ancient Ireland told tales of their mighty ancestors and great men, not unlike the people of every nation and tribe.  When writing came, they began to put these tales into manuscripts.  Out of the large body of remaining literature, in 1879 P.W. Joyce chose thirteen legends he felt represented the most interesting of Irish tales.  Eleven of these were printed in the first edition, but this volume is a reproduction of the third edition which has them all.

Old Celtic Romances

They’re roughly in order of internal chronology.

“The Fate of the Children of Lir; or, The Four White Swans” is the first of what are called “the Three Sorrows of Irish Storytelling” due to their somewhat tragic endings.   Lir’s four children are turned into swans by their stepmother due to her belief that people liked them better than her.  She curses them to spend nine hundred years in those forms, three hundred years each in three different bodies of water.

Only the arrival of Christianity to Erin allows them to leave their watery prison, and a disciple of Saint Patrick is able to turn them human, whereupon the children of Lir die of extreme old age.

There’s some evidence to suggest that some of the older tales started out under the old “pagan” religions and then were altered to meet new Christian guidelines.  “Druidical wands” are common in the early ones.

“The Fate of the Children of Turenn; or, the Quest for the Eric-Fine” is set in the days of Lugh of the Long Arms, as he battles the Fomori (sea raiders, often depicted as giants or deformed.)  Lugh’s father Kian is murdered by the three sons of Turenn due to an earlier quarrel that is not explained.  Because Turenn is a distant relative of Kian, this is considered kin-slaying and Lugh can choose to have them either executed immediately, or exact a blood price (the “eric-fine” of the title.)

Lugh describes the eric-fine in general terms that makes it sound not so bad, but when the brothers accept, he reveals that each of the items he mentioned are in fact mystic relics of great power guarded by mighty owners, or are otherwise hard to get.  For example, the three apples he wants are the Golden Apples of the Garden of Hisberna, which can heal any wound among other properties.

The brothers cut a bloody swath across Europe gaining the parts of the eric-fine, using each item they gain to make it easier to get the rest.  Eventually, a smart king just gives them what they want rather than have his army and himself slaughtered.  But with 5/7ths of the fine gathered, Lugh plays a nasty trick on the children of Turenn, mind-zapping them into returning to Eire with only that part of the eric-fine, confiscating the magic items, and then sending them off for the rest.

The last two items have the toughest guardians yet, and the brothers are fatally wounded in the process of gaining them.  The children of Turenn manage to return to Lugh successful in paying their fine, and ask him to heal them.  He refuses and cheerfully watches the brothers expire, followed by their grieving father and sister.  The ancient Irish really know how to hold onto a grudge!

“The Overflowing of Lough Neagh, and the Story of Liban the Mermaid” tells the tale of two brothers who decide to leave home with their followers to settle new territory.  One perishes quickly, but the other settles down in an area with a magic well.  Too soon the protection around the well is broken, and it floods the entire valley.  One person, Liban, survives by becoming a mermaid.

“Connla of the Golden Hair and the Fairy Maiden” has the handsome young man lured from his home by  a beautiful woman from the land of Moy-Nell, where there is no old age or sickness.  He is never seen again.

“The Voyage of Maildun” has the title character go off for vengeance against the raiders who killed his father.  He’s told by a soothsayer to only bring sixty crew members, but his three foster-brothers insist on coming along.  Breaking this prohibition gets the ship lost in a storm, and they must sail randomly to bizarre islands and have adventures not unlike the Odyssey.  They lose each of the foster-brothers and are at last able to find their way again, but Maildun learns he must show forgiveness to finally come home.

“The Fairy Palace of the Quicken Trees” is the first of the tales starring Finn, mighty leader of the Fena.  Finn  and his men slaughter an invading army, sparing only Midac, the youngest son of the invading king.  Finn brings up the lad in his own house, intending to turn him to good.

Midac, though, holds a grudge, and when he is fully grown, invites Finn and his men to his palace made of quicken tree (mountain ash).   It turns out to be a magical trap, foiled only by a) a couple of the younger men of the Fena being left on guard outside the palace, and b) Midac holding a huge banquet for all the villainous fellows he’d recruited to help him kill Finn.  The baddies come over in small groups, and by the time Midac is there with his full army, the Fena have been freed to fight.

This story also introduces Conan Maol (“Conan the Bald”) who is something of a comic relief figure.  He’s a coward, glutton and most feared for his sharp tongue-but also deadly in a fight.

“The Pursuit of the Giolla Dacker and His Horse” has Finn and his men be fooled by a giant calling himself “Giolla Dacker” (“slothful fellow”) who has a equally slothful-looking horse.  Giolla Dacker tricks several of the Fena to mount his horse in an effort to tame it–they are then stuck to it, and the suddenly vigorous horse runs off, followed by its also suddenly speedy master.  The rest of the story is the many adventures of Finn and his men trying to get back their fellows.

One bit that I noticed was Dermat O’Dyna has the habit of never eating leftovers–later his companions are able to know he’s been somewhere by the heap of half-eaten deer, as he kills a new one whenever he’s hungry rather than finish off the old one.

“The Pursuit of Dermat and Grania” has the young hero Dermat elope with the beautiful Grania.  This is an issue as she was promised to Finn (who is by this time old enough to be her grandfather.)  Finn reacts badly.  After much slaughter, Finn finally backs off.

However, this leads to the scene I describe as “remember that time twenty-five years ago when I said I forgave you?  I lied.  Now, I’ve led you into a trap, and will watch cheerfully as you bleed out and refuse to magically heal you.”  The translator notes that this is an unusually negative portrayal of Finn.

“The Chase of Slieve Cullinn” is the story of how Finn’s hair changed from golden to silver.  It involves a shapeshifter, a magical lake, and vanity.

“The Chase of Slieve Fuad” has another shapeshifter lure the Fena including Finn to her brother’s castle to be magically imprisoned and slaughtered.  This is Conan Maol’s big moment as he saves everyone–but also has a sheepskin permanently bonded to his body, requiring shearing every year.

“Oisin in Tír na nÓg” concerns Finn’s son Oisin, (also known as Ossian), the last survivor of the Fena.  He had been scouted by a young woman from the Land of Youth, and agreed to accompany her there to be her husband.  And that fair land was agreeable to him, but Oisin grew homesick.  When he returned to Ireland, the Fena were long  dead, the people had shrunk, and Christianity had come to Erin.  Oisin accidentally broke a taboo, and could not return to his wife, becoming old and blind.  (Tradition has it that this and the preceding two tales were told by Oisin to Saint Patrick before he died.)

“The Voyage of the Sons of O’Corra” has triplets who were dedicated to the Devil before birth (as God had not answered O’Corra’s pleas for children.)  They caused much mischief in honor of their sponsor (mostly destroying churches and outraging the religious) before suddenly coming to the epiphany that evil is bad.

Repenting, they converted to Christianity and started atoning for their ill deeds.  As part of their penance, the triplets and several men of the cloth took a sea voyage where they saw many strange islands, some of which were metaphorical.  (The translator notes that many of the instances are similar to or identical to scenes from Maildun’s voyage.)

“The Fate of the Sons of Usna” ends the volume with the Third Sorrow.  A girl named Deirdre is born, and it’s prophesied that she will bring woe to Ulster and Erin.  Deidre is raised in isolation, but decides that she wants to marry a man with hair as black as a raven, cheeks as red as blood, and skin as white as snow.

This turns out to be Naisi, one of the sons of Usna, and a Knight of the Red Branch.  He reciprocates, and they elope to Alba (Scotland) with his brothers and a group of followers.

Unfortunately, King Conor has decided he wants Deirdre for his own wife, and engages in a series of treacherous actions to bring the sons of Usna and Deirdre back to Ireland and then have the men killed.  This eventually works and Deirdre dies of grief.

Mr. Joyce notes in his prologue that he has erred more on the side of preserving the sense of the language from the old texts than a literal translation.  He’s also kept in the poetry that the characters occasionally burst into, which is probably fragments of the earlier oral tradition versions of the stories.  There are copious footnotes that explain words and the present-day names of places.  End notes go into further detail on aspects of Irish folklore.

As mentioned earlier, this Dover publication is a reproduction rather than a reformatted reprint.  This means it keeps the tiny font of the original book, and the even tinier font of the poetry sections.  It was difficult to read on Kindle, so I would recommend springing for the hard copy instead.  I also urge Dover to come out with a large print edition.

The writing style is a bit stiff and old-fashioned, but that’s to be expected.  Recommended to those wanting to research Celtic legends but without the ability to read the sources in the original languages.

Disclaimer:  I received a download of this book through Netgalley for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

Comic Book Review: Oni Press Starter Pack 2016

Comic Book Review: Oni Press Starter Pack 2016 by various

While I spend many of my comics-related posts on this  blog talking about the Big Two’s superhero comic books, there are a number of worthy small press comics companies that put out interesting material every year.  Oni Press has put out an affordable collection of seven first issues from various series they’ve printed over their existence.

Oni Press Starter Pack 2016

Leading off this trade paperback is The Sixth Gun by Cullen Bunn & Brian Hurtt.  This horror-western about a collection of cursed firearms is as it happens something I have reviewed before.  I won’t repeat myself here, but note that the series lasted eight collected volumes in its main storyline, with three extra graphic novels of spinoff stories.  Pretty impressive!

Letter 44 by Charles Soule and Alberto Jiménez Alburquerque is science fiction.  When incoming president Stephen Blades reads a letter left for him by his predecessor, he learns that many of the bizarre actions taken by Francis T. Carroll were based on information not shared with the American people..  It seems that there are aliens doing…something…in the asteroid belt.  President Carroll felt it was most important for America to arm itself just in case the aliens are hostile, thus his warmongering activities on Earth that have made a mess of foreign policy while neglecting domestic issues that are coming to a head.

The United States also sent a secret manned space mission out to the location of the alien activity in an effort to learn more; they’re just now coming close to their destination.  The astronauts have concealed certain information from their Earth-bound mission controllers…among other things, one of them is pregnant.

There are some pretty clear parallels to the Bush/Obama transition, with mentions of lies about weapons of mass destruction, and a white conservative president with a bad reputation on the economy and war being replaced with a darker-skinned liberal.  But as the series progresses, the special circumstances lessen those similarities as President Blades tries a very different approach to the same situation President Carroll faced.

Meanwhile, the astronauts learn the truth behind the alien presence, and we learn the backstory of their mission.

The Bunker by Joshua Hale Fialkov & Joe Infunari starts with five recent college graduates going out to the woods to bury a time capsule.  Except that they find themselves uncovering a bunker with four of their names on it.  A bunker that contains items alleging to be from the post-apocalyptic future, including letters from their future selves.

It seems that by their actions, the quintet will bring about the near-extinction of the human race.  But not doing so might create an even worse future.  It’s not clear if the future selves are trying to create a time loop, or avert one.

This was a double-sized first issue, so a lot goes on.  This does include nudity and on-page sex, as well as some nasty violence and strong language.  The last page twist is foreshadowed, but still pretty shocking.

Stumptown  by Greg Rucka and Justin Greenwood appears to be the first issue…of the third series.  Private detective Dex Parios participates in an amateur soccer match (her team loses) before going to a professional game of footy with her brother Ansel and friend Mercury.  It’s hometown Portland vs. Seattle, and autographs after!  But afterwards, Dex and Ansel find a badly beaten (maybe dead) Mercury in the bushes.  Is it hooliganism or a crime unrelated to sports?

Greg Rucka is well known for his crime comics, but the soccer elements took up most of the issue for a slow start.

Helheim by Cullen Bunn & Joëlle Jones takes place somewhere up North during the Sixth Century.  A stockaded village is caught in a war between witches.  A raiding party is chased by warriors of the witch Groa who soon become the undead.  A man named Rikard keeps having visions of himself weeping tears of blood.  When the village itself is breached, Rickard is beheaded, but that’s not the end of his participation in the war.  Especially if his lover Bera has anything to say about it!

Rikard is relatively nice for a Norseman of the time, not happy about abandoning comrades or turning over loved ones to the enemy as a peace offering.  His father is made of sterner stuff, but neither of them is fully prepared for what happens next.

Kaijumax by Xander Cannon is a considerable change of pace.  The world has long been infested with monsters who ran rampant over the human civilizations.  But now the humans have developed a way to give themselves giant superpowered forms (ala Ultraman) and have been capturing the kaiju they see as criminals, placing them on an island prison.

One of the latest inmates is Electrogor, who claims to have been just out looking for food for its children.  Alas, the humans take poorly to kaiju eating their power supplies.  Electrogor knows the humans are after its children, and it appeals to E68FE3 (“Hellmoth”), a monster that’s about to be released on a technicality, to help the kids out.

E68FE3 wants a return favor though, and the resulting altercation puts Electrogor in solitary confinement.  It’s only then that a guard lets Electrogor know that the “technicality” Hellmoth was released on is that there are no living witnesses to its crimes.  Especially the children.

Despite the cartoony art and many jokes, this series is a commentary on the American prison system and the abuses rampant within it.  So Not For Children.

We finish with The Life After by Joshua Hale Fialkov & Gabo.  Jude sleepwalks through his life, every day seeming exactly like every other day.  Perhaps a little too much exactly like every other day–how many times can one woman drop her handkerchief on the bus?  But today is different.  Today, Jude picks up the handkerchief and tries to get it back to the woman.

It seems like the world is out to stop him, and it starts getting much weirder, but Jude eventually does catch up to the woman, and seemingly breaks her out of her routine as well.  This disturbs secret watchers who say that no one has escaped in two thousand years.

Shortly thereafter, Jude meets Ernest Hemingway, who believes that everyone in their city is in fact a suicide, and this is the afterlife.

Some nifty use of panels and other art tricks, reminiscent of the Franco-Belgian style.

Content note:  the woman’s flashback includes on-panel prostitution, gore and childbirth as well as suicide.

There’s a wide assortment of genres represented here, and this is a good choice to pick up if you’re unfamiliar with Oni Press and want to know which series you might like.  Based on these first issues, I’m least impressed with The Bunker which skews even more cynical than I have a taste for.

Book Review: A Clash of Kings

Book Review: A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin

Note:  This review contains spoilers for the previous book A Game of Thrones; if you haven’t read that one yet, check out the review here.

A Clash of Kings

Westeros has too many kings.  In the south, the King on the Iron Throne is Joffrey Baratheon, heir to the late King Robert.  He is a beardless boy, and cruel, and there are those who say he is not Robert’s trueborn son.  Still, he has the support of Queen Mother Cersei, Robert’s widow, and her powerful Lannister clan.

To the east is the King of the Narrow Sea, Stannis Baratheon, middle brother of Robert.  He is the one who instigated the rumors of his nephew’s illegitimacy, which would make him the rightful heir, and has a strong navy.  He is a hard man who has few friends, and has taken up with a foreign god.

To the west, his younger brother Renly is the King in Highgarden.  While Joffrey and Stannis yet live, Renly’s claim to the throne is tenuous at best.  However, Renly is a man who makes friends easily, and has the support of most of the southern lords who are not directly connected to the Lannisters.

The King in the North is Robb Stark, son of the former King’s Hand Ned.  He is barely older than Joffrey, but far more accomplished in strategy and battle, and has the support of the northern lords.  He may have too much of his father’s tendency to do the right thing rather than the wise thing, and grows weary of his mother Catelyn’s counsel.

Further north is Mance Rayder, the King Beyond the Wall, who is rallying the free wildling people for a journey south, as the Others begin to stir.

In the far west islands, Balon Greyjoy is styled King of Salt and Rock.  He has long chafed under the rule of landsmen, and intends to pay the “iron price” for such seaports as he can seize while Westeros is in chaos.

And far to the East, Danerys Targaryen is the last known descendant of the previous rulers of Westeros, and thus the rightful queen of that line.  But she has another, perhaps more important title now:  Mother of Dragons!

Perhaps this might be a good time for Westeros to switch to representative democracy.

This is the second book in the A Song of Ice and Fire novel series, and source material for the Game of Thrones TV series.  It’s a thick book, with lots of events, though the tight third person narration means that many of those events take place “off-stage.”  Even the battle of King’s Landing, which gets a lot of detail, requires a key moment to be given in an after action report as none of the viewpoint characters are there.

So, let’s look at the viewpoint characters.  Eddard “Ned” Stark is dead (told you there’d be spoilers) and we still don’t get chapters for Robb or Rickon.  But the rest of the Stark family is represented.

Catelyn Stark (nee Tully) initially is with King Robb’s forces until he makes her ambassador to Renly.  She tries to mediate between him and Stannis, as their rival claims endanger them both.  It does not go well, and she is forced to retreat with one of Renly’s bodyguards, the female knight Brienne.

Jon Snow has joined a Night Guard expedition beyond the wall to learn Mance Rayder’s intentions and if necessary stop him.  There are dark doings afoot, both those of ordinary men and of the supernatural.

Sansa Stark remains a hostage of the royal family in King’s Landing.  She’s trying to retain what shreds of her optimism and belief in chivalry she can, but the story seems intent on crushing every last bit of her naivete.

Arya Stark has managed to escape the royal city disguised as a boy named Arry, only the first of several name changes.  She experiences the war from the perspective of the “smallfolk” who have no choice but to obey whichever master currently holds sway or be killed.  Her sections include a really cool character, but naming them would be a huge spoiler.

And Bran Stark learns that his body may be crippled, but he has powers of his own.  Also, being the eight-year-old lord of Winterfell castle is not as much fun as you might have thought, especially when enemies come knocking.

Meanwhile, Tyrion Lannister continues to be his family’s viewpoint character.  He’s appointed acting King’s Hand while his father Tywin deals with the military aspects of the multi-sided war.  His short stature is no handicap in a job that primarily involves making and carrying out plans, and Tyrion has more success than any other viewpoint character.  But because he took the post just as the ill effects of the war hit King’s Landing, he’s despised by the citizens.  And his relatives aren’t making things any easier!

Further afield, Dani is trying to parlay her baby dragons and handful of followers into a force that will retake Westeros for the Targaryen line.  This is the plotline with the most overt magical elements, including a trippy sequence where Dani gets a great deal of symbolic information that she can’t use because she has no context for it.  Apparently, dragons enhance magic merely by existing, but most magic is used in unpleasant ways so that’s not a good thing.

The first new viewpoint character is Theon Grayjoy, who appeared as a minor player in the first book.  He is at last released from his hostage status with the Starks so that King Robb can offer an alliance with Balon, Theon’s father.  Theon has a lot of resentment against his foster family, and is planning to betray them as soon as it’s convenient.  Balon, on the other hand, has no interest in an alliance in the first place–worse, he distrusts Theon because the young man has been too long away from their pirate island.  And indeed, Theon does very poorly trying to navigate between the differing ideas of correct behavior of the Northmen and the Ironmen.

Davos Seaworth, the Onion Knight, is completely new.  He’s a former smuggler raised to knighthood by Stannis Baratheon for services rendered, while also being punished for his crimes.  Thus Davos is one of the few men totally loyal to the would-be king while not having any illusions about his character.  Ser Davos speaks truth to power, which does not bode well for his longevity.

This volume is full of signs and portents, beginning with a red comet that a number of characters think is relevant to them…but they can’t all be right.  Several other clues are disregarded due to prejudice or past experience.

Content issues: Rape continues to be the go-to “gritty realism” thing in this volume; none of the viewpoint characters are raped this time, but it is frequently threatened.  Incest gets an increased emphasis, once played for comedy!  Lots of violence of course, torture is mentioned more than once, and frequent cruel and pointless deaths  And of course salty language.

There are some really cool moments and the general quality of the writing is high.  On the other hand, the survival rate of likable characters is low (and unlikable characters are only somewhat longer-lived) so this tends to be a depressing book.

Recommended if you liked the first book or the TV series.

Now, let’s have the TV show opening credits!

 

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents Men of War

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents Men of War edited by Paul Levitz

In 1977, African-American male leads in mainstream comic books were still countable on one hand (and don’t even ask about African-American women!)  But this also had the effect of making a comic with a black person on the front attention-getting.  And I suspect that at least some of the creation of “Gravedigger” came from that fact.

Showcase Presents Men of War

Gravedigger was the lead feature in DC Comics’ last-launched war comics series of the Bronze Age, Men of War.  He is introduced as Sergeant Ulysses Hazard, a polio survivor who threw himself into intense physical training (including martial arts) to overcome his handicaps.  Despite his superior physical condition and combat skills, Hazard was consigned to a segregated battalion and assigned to funeral detail (thus his codename.)  After his heroics saved lives (except his best military friend) and defeated Nazi troops, the white officers ignored his contributions and denied his request for reassignment to a combat unit.

In the second issue, Hazard somehow gets back to the U.S. and single-handedly infiltrates the Pentagon War Room to demonstrate his skills.  A character identified in that issue as the Secretary of War but in later issues demoted to an undersecretary (as his sliminess would have been a slur on the character of Henry L. Stimson, the actual Secretary at the time) decides to use Hazard as a political pawn.  If “Gravedigger” fails on one of the suicidal missions, he can be written off, but if he succeeds, the Undersecretary can take credit.

Now Captain Ulysses Hazard so that he can pull rank when necessary, Gravedigger returns to Europe and takes on a number of commando missions ranging from rescuing art from the Nazis to destroying an experimental mini-sub.  There are guest appearances by a couple of DC’s other war comics characters, and the final issue features Gravedigger actually leading Easy Company (normally the job of Sergeant Rock) for a few hours.

Gravedigger was basically “military Batman”, performing superheroic feats on a regular basis.  To be fair, this is common in comic books about commando-style solo characters, but if you are a stickler for realism, look elsewhere.  Later in the series, he gets a cross-shaped facial scar to give him more distinctive looks, important in comic books.  He even gets an archnemesis, Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Minister of Propaganda, who enlists mad science in a massive scheme to rid the Reich of this one commando.

In the next to last story, Gravedigger personally saves the lives of Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, though an opportunity is missed to have Captain Hazard bond with FDR over their mutual experience with polio.

In addition to the expected violence, there’s also period racism, ableism and anti-Semitism (the last confined to Nazi characters.)

The back-up features varied from issue to issue.  “Enemy Ace” featured Baron Hans von Hammer, “the Hammer of Hell”, a World War I German fighter pilot.  He was depicted as noble and honorable, one of a dying breed of warrior outdated by brutal modern warfare.  Some of the stories have art by Howard Chaykin, who is not as well served by the black and white reprint as the other artists.

“Dateline: Frontline” was about American reporter Wayne Clifford, covering World War Two while the U.S. was still neutral, and having his naivete chipped away bit by bit.  He struggles with censorship, the temptation of writing the story to suit the person who can give you access, and the moral gray areas of war.

“Rosa” features a spy working in the late 19h Century who is loyal to no country, and has the habit of switching accents in every sentence either to disguise his nationality or (as he claims in a somewhat dubious origin story) because he is literally a man without a country.  His name might or might not actually be Rosa.  Most notable for having a character switch sides between chapters for plot convenience.

This volume contains all 26 issues, and is not brilliant but is decent work by journeymen creators.  Worth picking up if you are a war comics fan, or interested in the history of African-American characters in comic books.

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